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THE LEFT AND ELECTORAL PARTICIPATION


Edward S. Herman

The

left always has a problem at election time, and embattled left pens are already

trying to demonstrate that we should: (1) forego voting; (2) vote for Ralph

Nader; or (3) vote for the lesser evil (Gore). The fact that there is always

such vigorous dispute on this subject, with people of solid left credentials

coming to sharply different conclusions, results in part from the extremely

marginal position of the left. Its members never have the option of voting for

candidates who support left positions and who also have any serious chance of

attaining high office. Leftists are always in the position of having to

participate, if at all, as outsiders.

This

produces one strand of argument as regards voting that says that if the system

will not allow anybody who represents our basic values and policy positions to

make a serious electoral bid for power, we should reject the entire enterprise

by refusing to participate. This position rests on the belief that our views can

not be heard and the positions we favor can not be debated because of a stacked

deck–stacked by the overwhelming importance of corporate money in elections,

plus the huge bias of the corporate and advertiser-funded media. To vote is to

give some kind of approval to this process, suggesting that this is really

democracy in action and that change can be effected through electoral

participation. This also distracts people from thinking about organizing and

acting to do something that would really facilitate change.

This

case for non-participation is stronger when the "lesser evil"

represents a genuine evil. For example, consider that the Clinton-Gore team has

been the leader in imposing "sanctions of mass destruction" in Iraq

that have killed over a million Iraqis, with monthly ongoing totals during the

electoral campaign of an estimated 4,000 or more children under five years of

age. This team is also guilty of other serious crimes, in Colombia, Serbia,

Kosovo, East Timor, and elsewhere. At home, its support of the 1996 Personal

Responsibility act, ending the U.S. committment to assist poor people, and its

crime and terrorism legislation, have been serious betrayals of principle and

elementary decency and attacks on human rights and civil liberties. Gore has

supported all these actions and policies and hasn’t distanced himself from them

even for electoral purposes. A vote for this "lesser evil" is

therefore a vote that implicitly approves seriously regressive policies at home,

a growing military budget, an aggressive and murderous foreign policy, and the

commission of literal war crimes abroad.

So,

in addition to refusing to participate because the deck is stacked and

progressive change through electoral politics is therefore ruled out in advance

by the structural facts of "golden rule," we may also refuse to vote

for people whose performance no leftist can accept and approve. A vote is a form

of approval of the candidate as well as the process–nonvoting is a way of

expressing disapproval of both, and as more and more people do refuse to vote

the system as well as the candidates lose credibility. I suspect that if the

voting option "none of the above" was made available, many people who

pull the lever for candidates while holding their noses, would instead vote that

the existing plutocratic electoral democracy is failing to provide vote-worthy

candidates.

Enter

Ralph Nader. He is making a presidential run on the Green Party ticket that is

more serious than the one he attempted in 1996. He is trying to raise money and

he plans to campaign aggressively and participate in debates with the other

candidates whenever possible. He will talk about a string of issues off the

two-party agenda, centering in excessive corporate power and the means of

controlling it, and including corporate welfare, environmental abuses, the

bloated military budget and shriveled public sector, free trade, and the

militarization of foreign policy. Voting for Nader represents a form of refusal

and rejection of the "practical" options.

Katha

Pollitt, who voted for Nader in 1996, assails his candidacy this year

("Progressive Presidential Politics," Nation, April 17, 2000), even

though he is making a more serious effort to get his message across and win

votes. She contends that third parties can’t win in the United States–the

playing field is too unlevel–so that such efforts are futile and a waste of

energy. But her second line of argument is that the differences between the

major political parties are real and that those differences can mean a lot to

affected groups. She mentions that blacks vote very heavily for the Democrats

and apparently see the Republicans as a menace to their welfare. Those deeply

concerned over choice and the fate of Roe versus Wade see a significant

difference in the major parties. The Republicans’ push for school privatization

and vouchers makes them also a more serious threat to school teachers and public

schools, so that teachers and many others see concrete gains and losses from

available electoral options. Pollitt doesn’t mention the Supreme Court, but for

many the threat of the Republicans putting in another Scalia or Thomas is

frightening–for some this overrides the evil of the lesser evil and all other

considerations and causes them to opt for Gore.

These

points are not easily dismissed and it is not possible to scoff at their being

decisive considerations for many. However, a few counter considerations deserve

attention. One thing Pollitt and others neglect is the educational function of

alternative parties even as they lose. Nader will be calling continuous

attention to issues that Gore-Bush would like to avoid, and he will be assailing

the dominance of money in limiting our effective choices. Without such a

candidacy who would raise such issues? And even if he loses, many will be aware

that he is losing not because of his lack of presidential merit but because of

the unlevel playing field that he will be attacking. This will mitigate the

potentially demoralizing effect of his modest vote.

On

the differences between the Democrats and Republicans and the net value of the

Democrats winning, several cautions are in order. First, on some issues the

Clinton administration has been worse than the Republicans, as in the crime and

terrorism legislation, and possibly even in its aggressive, militaristic and

cruel foreign policy. In its priority push of the corporate agenda supporting

free trade and unconstrained corporate globalization, a balanced budget, and

welfare "reform," while protecting the military budget, the

Clintonites have actually led the country in the direction desired by the

corporate community and "moderate" Republicans. With a Democratic

president, the Democratic Party supported policies that it would have opposed or

moderated if offered by a Republican president. The Democrats and many

progressives are lulled into complaisance or are paralyzed when their leader is

in office, mouthing liberal slogans even as he subverts liberalism.

The

priority efforts pursued by Clinton and supported by his party feed back to

damage folks like teachers and blacks who see concrete advantages in supporting

Democrats. Without anybody seriously contesting these central policies the

corporate agenda will continue to dominate and benefits to those outside this

small clique of beneficiaries will tend to shrink. It can be argued that third

parties are needed as a protection against the Democrats doing this–either by

forcing the Democrats back to populist service or by directly providing the

democratic alternative that the Democrats have abandoned.

Pollitt

and others also downplay a long-term versus short-term perspective. Arguably the

immediate differences between the lesser and greater evil must be weighed

against the secular overall move to the right helped along by voting for

short-term interests in each election. Because the Democrats can count on many

people voting for them for narrow concrete gains and marginal differences- -many

approaching the nominal only–they can focus on attracting a more conservative

constituency (and accommodating their corporate funders) by gradually abandoning

populist policies and service to their mass constituency, as Clinton has done.

This strategy has not been a winner for the Democrats, as it has contributed to

shifts from majority to minority positions in the U.S. senate, house, and in

state governorships in the Clinton years, as well as a weakened presidency.

Thus,

the concrete gains of the short run may be illusory if the entire dynamic of the

Democratic Party’s shifting to the right wipes out benefits and entitlements and

then reinstates some fraction of those undermined, which the Republicans would

leave wiped out. If this is the case, the short-run calculus of those supporting

the Democrats for such concrete gains may thus be helping undermine non-elite

benefits in the long run.

The

counter-argument to the above is that the long-run is a series of short-runs, so

that third parties and non-voting that gives the more evil party control will

push the political spectrum to the right even faster and impose heavy costs on a

large number of victims afforded at least minimal protection by Democratic rule.

The concrete small gains are a bird in the hand; the possible long- run gains

are speculative and far from assured. It is not clear that if the Democrats

halted their march to the right that that march, which is based in part on

structural changes damaging to real democracy that feed into the political

process, would not actually accelerate.

On

the other hand, Republican control and policies might polarize enough to clarify

issues for many people and force changes in the party alignments–making a third

party viable if not impelling changes in the Democratic party. Admittedly this

could be dangerous and risky, and I do not claim to have definitive answers to

these difficult questions. There are many unknowns in this pretty bleak picture.

I myself am planning to help and vote for Ralph Nader, based on the weights I

give the considerations discussed above. But I am not about to attack others

like Pollitt who have a different view and different weighting of the variables

and values at stake.